On styles, expectations and body

Monday, January 4, 2010

Last Saturday, I was doing an in store sampling of Quady Electra for the San Francisco Wine Exchange. I have done some in the past for their Milbrandt Vineyards wines, and will be doing some more in the future. The most enjoyable thing about doing the samples is the people that you meet, whether or not they like or purchase the product. This time I was at the state store located at 32 South Second Street, in the Olde City section of Philadelphia. And during that time, I got to chat with a returned Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny), and a number of other characters/people. One was a woman that came in with two others, and made some assumptions in regards to the basic tastes of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In her explanation(s), one was more full-bodied than the others, which was incorrect; she also got a number of other points wrong. And this leads me to this column.

Many people assume certain things about wine, i.e. having certain expectations of what to get based on what they are drinking. Things go like:

  • red wines are all dry
  • white wines are all sweet
  • wines from France are the best
  • white zinfandel is a grape, and so is red zinfandel
  • Yellowtail is a good wine
  • I've had x type of wine and I don't like it
  • Champagne is all that, or I don't like champagne, or this champagne is the bomb

Now, unless someone has truly been exposed to a number of wines over the years, and has had a number of different versions of the same varietal, be it from different countries, different appellations, different producers, and in a number of styles, they really have no basis to make any pronouncements when it comes to wine. It's like one of those arguments I used to have, as well as hear others have, in regards to whom was the better martial artists/fighters between a number of people, especially when none of the participants in the conversation have had ample amounts of experience in fighting arts to foment an intelligent position.

Many people with limited exposure to wine make too many judgements in regards to the varietals and types of wine that they have experienced; the same can be said to our biases against people based on race, religion, age, creed and color. You essentially have adults walking around spewing the opinions of children in regards to something in which they don't have a developed and matured outlook.

Now let's get down to some basics.

Just because a wine says that it is a certain grape, that doesn't mean that it's 100% that grape; usually a wine claiming to be a certain grape is anywhere from 75% to 85% that grape and the rest made up of one or more other grape varietals. Unless it specifically states the blend, or that the wine is 100% one grape, remember that it's something else. Also, don't forget that sometimes there is abject fraud in labeling; Gallo just won a judgement based on the suppliers of its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir, since it found out that some 20 million plus bottles of it sold was not in fact Pinot Noir.

Blend is also important when you are talking wines named after appellations in which they were grown. This would be true for most wines in France and Italy, whereas an appellation's governing body there mandates what can be used in wines with the designation as well as minimums of each grape. However, this is not to say that every Chianti tastes the same.

Not everyone produces a wine in the same style, as Chardonnay and Chablis are both made from the Chardonnay grape, but the styles of wine are different, yielding two completely different tastes. There is New World versus Old World styles. There are wine producing neighbors that use the same varietals, but different methods of making their wines which can make them taste miles apart.

Alsace and some New World Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio wines taste totally different than Italian style Pinot Grigio, while they are the same grape. The former are usually full-bodied and robust in flavors of peach, pear, and/or apricot. The latter are very clean and devoid of most taste. Try an Arcane Cellars Pinot Gris (Washington State) as well as a Fun House Pinot Grigio (Australia) and a Willm Pinot Gris (Alsace) when you get a chance.

Style of wines are determined by not only the grapes used, but how the wine was fermented and aged, with such factors as whether oak was used, the maceration process, and the fermentation process. It's like how depending upon the part of the country you're in, there is a different method of making things such as pizza and barbecue. Well, the same is true for wine.

Depending upon the style used to make a wine, the result is it's level of body, which many people rate on a scale of one to five, with the higher number representing full-bodied. Body is something that most people don't understand, equating it with the mouth and feel of a wine, which deals with the texture and weight of the wine versus the taste. A light-bodied wine has less character and tends to be on the drier side, while a full-bodied wine bursts forth with flavor, and in a traditionally dry wine as most reds are, comes across with some sweetness in its flavor. The first Syrah that I had was very full-bodied, but then again, it was at least sixty dollars a bottle, maybe even eighty dollars.

Other expectations that people have is that the price of the bottle determines the quality of it. While in many cases this is true, simply based on the cost of the ingredients and their quality, you can encounter some phenomenal wines under twenty dollars a bottle, and most of my favorite Chardonnays are less than that, with one being six dollars a bottle (Rayun Chardonnay).

That said, sometimes the best thing to do is to actually participate and learn more versus assuming things based on a platform of ignorance. Hey, we all have done this at least once in our lives, and many of us constantly do it, especially commenting on something that we read or heard that was reported as news and wasn't the truth anyway.

Oh, and here are my comments to those points earlier:

  • red wines are all dry Technically yes, but a full bodied red will taste very welcoming to a white wine drinker. And then there are red grapes like Dornfelder and Saperavi.
  • white wines are all sweet Definitely not true, as there is Sancerre, Vino Verdejo and a number of other dry wines, as well as there are styles in which otherwise very sweet wines become very dry.
  • wines from France are the best - Nope
  • white zinfandel is a grape, and so is red zinfandel There is only Zinfandel, which is a red grape (the genetic equivalent to Primitivo). White Zinfandel is made from processing the grape a certain way, which would be style affected.
  • Yellowtail is a good wine oh please
  • I've had x type of wine and I don't like it then try that type of wine/grape varietal again by different producers in the same country, different countries, and at different price points.
  • Champagne is all that, or I don't like champagne, or this champagne is the bomb Champagne is just sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France using a method second fermentation in the bottle; it is no more special than another wine, it's just all in the marketing of it (as most things French are all about the marketing). Additionally, you have to try different dosages (sugar levels) of Champagne to see which style you like as well as different grape combination. Also, you might not be drinking Champagne, but some other sparkling wine.

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Our Mission: The Black Winer strives to expose African Americans [and others] to wines, without the flair, stuffiness, and airs of elitism and snobbery that you get from sommeliers and high level wine enthusiasts. We believe in finding something that you like the taste of, outside of the basic brands that you have been force-fed over the years through a combination of ethnically targeted advertising, and what people in your family have historically been drinking.

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